Too little, too late
WGH rallies in second half, but McKinley’s big start is too much
WARREN — There’s nothing like the opening kickoff of a high school football season.
The players are fired up, the fans are enthusiastic, the respective bands sound better than ever — even the officials look like they’re ready to sprint down the sideline without pulling any muscles.
But when the visiting team returns the opening kickoff to the 1-yard line, it sucks the excitement right out of the home team’s players and fans.
Such was the case Friday night at Mollenkopf Stadium where Canton McKinley’s Khyree Woody took the first kick 91 yards from his own 8-yard line to the Warren G. Harding 1.
Two plays later, McKinley quarterback Alijah Curtis scored on a sneak and the Bulldogs were off to a 28-0 halftime lead before holding off a determined second-half rally by Harding, which made the final score 28-14.
“Your first play in 2018. and you give up a long kickoff return. We’ve been working on it since May, that’s the frustrating part about it,” Harding coach Steve Arnold said. “I don’t want to blow it out of proportion or minimize it, but you can’t give up a kickoff return on the first play of the game. That’s deflating.
“But all that being said, we fought back and went toe-to-toe in the second half. Not to give up a point in the second half says something about the character of these young men. We’re going to be OK. You hate to start off 0-1, but we weren’t playing chopped liver either.”
Big plays were the order of the day — at least of the first half — for the visiting Bulldogs.
On McKinley’s second possession, a 33-yard pass from Curtis to Jalen Ross set up an 11-yard scoring run by Jamal Price.
Curtis hooked up with Woody for a 67-yard scoring pass with 8:42 left in the second quarter, then found Woody again from 20 yards out after escaping a near sack by two Harding defenders. That touchdown came with 37 seconds remaining before halftime.
“We didn’t quit. We could have very easily quit when it was 28-0 at halftime,” Arnold said. “But we had a chance to cut it to 28-21 late in the third quarter, beginning of the fourth quarter, and we had some mistakes.”
“Harding’s a good team, they have a lot of weapons, and once they settled down — obviously the second half was a different ballgame than the first half,” McKinley coach Dan Reardon said. “Our kids found a way to get it done and stop the bleeding, and we’re 1-0.”
Senior running back Kay’Ron Adams was most of the offense for Harding, which wore its throwback Panthers uniforms against historic rival McKinley. He cleared the 100-yard mark on the ground in the first half, on the way to 166 yards on 29 carries.
The passing game under sophomore quarterback Elijah Taylor opened up in the second half. He finished 16-for-28 for 217 yards, with only one of those completions coming in the first half.
Receivers Ja’Kari Salter (6 catches for 79 yards), Chris Chew (3 for 77) and Jeremy Wilson (5 for 38) also played key roles in the second half.
“It’s a work in progress. We saw some positive things with us throwing the ball,” Arnold said. “The veteran part of it is our line and Kay’Ron. The receivers and the quarterbacks are getting their first taste of varsity football.”
Despite good overall yardage numbers, Harding came up short several times when in scoring range. On the first drive of the second half, WGH went from the 38 to a first and goal at the McKinley 10. The Bulldogs jumped on a fumbled snap, ending that Harding effort.
The Harding defense forced a punt, and this time Taylor found Chew on a well-executed out-and-up route for a 37-yard touchdown play. That score came with 3:42 left in the third quarter.
Three plays before that TD, Adams scored on a 22-yard run, but the play was called back because of a penalty.
Jarod Zillinger recovered a Canton fumble on the next possession, and Taylor then found Salter on a 28-yard scoring pass at the 2:36 mark of the third.
Early in the fourth quarter, WGH drove from its 20 to a first down at the Bulldog 12. The drive was helped by a 36-yard pass to Chew and a big 12-yard run by Adams to convert a third down.
But Taylor couldn’t connect on a pass into the end zone on fourth down from the 8 and McKinley took over with 5:59 left in the game. The Bulldogs got a key 16-yard scramble from Curtis to convert a third down and punted back to Harding with less than two minutes remaining.
Reardon, a former Harding assistant coach and Ursuline head coach — he took the Irish to three straight state titles — was happy to get the ‘W’ in week one.
“We have a young team, we won on the road in a big-time venue against a proud football program,” he said. “We got it done.”
“It’s a little frustrating that you give them seven points right off the bat, and then the missed opportunities, a touchdown called back,” Arnold said. “Those are things that transpired throughout the four quarters of this game that hurt us.”